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DayZ, the ARMA 2 mod which should soon see release as a standalone game, is famous for bucking FPS trends, so it would make sense that its designer works under unorthodox methodologies. Dean Hall, the mod’s creator, gave a talk at GDC today titled DayZ: Lessons from Cherno in which he shed light on some of the unconventional ways that the game engages us.

DayZ is a success by all measures, boasting 1.7 million players, with a reported 80,000 concurrent users before Hall says his team stopped counting. All this flies in the face of the difficulties the game faced around the time it launched, including crippling bugs and an impenetrable installation process, by Hall’s admission. He attributes its success to how effectively DayZ taps into our fundamental nature.

The “pillars” around which he designed DayZ speak to this. By harnessing our need to tell stories, Hall feels that DayZ’s “unscripted happenings,” as he calls them, trump any tale he himself could fabricate. He related a few secondhand anecdotes, courtesy of the game’s community, which illustrate how powerfully these player-affected “happenings” can stir those who experience DayZ.

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Hall also described how DayZ taps into the “narcotic” effect of persistence by tweaking our sense of ownership. Feelings of loss are fundamental to us as humans, and as such, Hall argues, losing even a bottle of water stirs something deep in us in DayZ’s world of unregulated player-to-player interaction and permadeath. In his view, emotion trumps reason, which speaks not only to how readily players accept DayZ’s admitted shortcomings, but also how its spare mechanics punch above their weight class, so to speak, and effectively resonate with players. By the same token, Hall argues that elements in DayZ that would very likely annoy players in other games — like the need to eat on a schedule and bandage wounds — work because they occur in a logical context in which they’re deeply invested. He stresses, however, that he strives for “authenticity over realism.” It’s more important to Hall that game elements ring true rather than slavishly model reality.

It boils down into Hall’s “prime directive” for DayZ: “Don’t interfere with the player’s play-style.” DayZ is built on a foundation of risk, danger, and consequence. Players tacitly enter into a social contract when they play the game, and for the developer to intrude upon this dynamic would do disservice to its experience. While he’s more than happy to deal with cheaters and hackers, Hall is committed to not imposing his judgment on the community’s play-style. To hear the community tell it, DayZ is heavy in the emotional sense. If someone goes around murdering willy-nilly, they’ll either get theirs, or likely be overwhelmed by guilt.

As for Dean Hall, he’s currently working in-house at Bohemia, trying to get the standalone version of DayZ out the door. He mentioned he was planning a trek to Everest in the near future, which he’s hoping will solidify some ideas he’s been kicking around. Those familiar with Hall’s background will know that his military survival training provided a good deal of inspirational fodder for DayZ, so here’s to a successful trek in the mountains.


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